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on 24 June 2011
The genesis for this book came about when the author listened to her uncles' memoirs of the war. They were members of the Alpine Corps that experienced the Soviet counter-offensive in November 1942. By conducting additional interviews and through independent research the author created this story that she strongly thought deserved to be told.

The book is divided into four sections. After a few words of the initial invasion of Russia, the author moves to Operation Blue and the eventual deployment along the Don River, settling in between the Romanians to the south and the Hungarians to the north. One thing all three Axis Allies had in common and part of the reason for the quick penetration of the line was their lack of heavy weapons and fewer tanks. The skirmishes on the Don and the major offensive by the Soviets are included in this section. The megalomaniacal dictator was discussed as well.
The second section involves the pullback, the rear guard action of the Alpine Corp and the defense against the renewed Soviet attacks. The third section discusses the ordeal of captivity while the last section concerns the release of the survivors after the war.

There are eight topographical maps that shows general locations of certain events but there are no tactical maps showing specific troop deployments or axes of attack. There is a small photo gallery of the men of the Alpini; there are no battlefield scenes.
Ms Hamilton provides a capable Notes Section, Bibliography and Index. The author surprisingly also includes the composition of the Alpine Corps down to regiment level.

The overall battle tactics, descriptions and assessments are modest, subdued, incomplete for such a tumultuous time and sector. Don't read the book for the tactical aspects but the author shines in covering the human side of war, the experiences these men had to endure, the accomplishments achieved and if this aspect interests you then this would be a good candidate to read.
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on 23 October 2012
I bought the book expecting to be disappointed. This was because the writer claimed to have based parts of the book on the recollections of her uncles and I felt this might make the book less objective or open to cliches.

However, it's one of the best books on the Italian involvement in the war that I've read - and one of very few books on the subject written in English. It's more than this. It provides a vision of something completely outside the boundaries of normal human experience. Something that is barely comprehensible to us, in 21st century Europe. It gives us an insight into the apocalyptic world created by the `total war' in Russia through the eyes of people who felt themselves to be outsiders.

The book starts by giving an overview of the initial involvement of the Italian army in Russia from 1941 to 1942. It then focuses on the commitment of the Alpine division to the 1942 offensive, it's encirclement in the Russian winter offensives in 1942-43 and the retreat and treatment of prisoners.

However, the text combines eyewitness accounts with an historical overview. In doing this, we get a glimpse of what was happening on the Russian front from a different perspective. It isn't a German or Soviet perspective.

The witness accounts describe how the German authorities treated civilians, Jews and prisoners of war with inhuman disregard and violence. This is a horrific world of planned starvation and casual murder. What is striking, is that it appeared horrific and shocking to the Italian soldiers who saw it at the time. These were veterans of the war in Albania and Greece, yet their testimony shows that atrocities and mass murder were commonplace and evident in Nazi occupied Russia. The book maintains that the Italian military viewed this behaviour with revulsion, ensuring that their own troops behaved properly towards civilians. This appears to be borne out in most of the accounts, though it's unclear how much the Italian High Command knew.

Hamilton then moves on to describe the events and conditions on the Don front for the 3 Italian Alpine divisions. She presents a picture of what everyday life was like, as well as giving precise details of positions, issues, equipment and how the war was being conducted. Even though the Alpine divisions were designated as elite units, they were treated with disregard by the German High Command; to be employed as dispensible cannon fodder, like the rest of the Italian troops. Equipment was inappropriate, if marginally better than that of the infantry. They weren't used as mountain troops. During the subsequent Russian offensive, they were deprived of accurate information and refused permission to withdraw from the Don front until two days after the majority of German units had begun to withdraw. By this time they had been encircled.

What happened next was, in every sense, a nightmare. A fighting march over hundreds of kilometres for some 200,000 Italian troops mixed with Hungarian, Romanian and German units and stragglers in temperatures that regularly fell to minus 40 degrees centigrade. Again the book has struck a good balance between trying to recreate the first-hand experience of this retreat through testimony and accounts, and giving more precise details of what happened during the retreat and break-out. The Alpine divisions with surviving elements of the 24th Panzer division formed the fighting advance which eventually broke out of the encirclement and facilitated the escape of over 100,000 troops.

Her narrative and eye witness accounts present a very vivid image of what happened during this retreat. It's a story of abandoned wounded, lice and typhus, slow starvation and mutilation from frostbite. It also describes how the German military command only provided assistance to its own troops, resulting in the destruction of two out of the three Alpine divisions. One surviving Italian Major openly addressed his troops after reaching safety; `It's an insult to our dead to speak of an alliance with the Germans...the Germans are our enemy, more so than in the war of 1915'. On the other hand, Russian peasants provided help to retreating Italians offering food and shelter.

I don't think this is a just the author's opinion. The book's portrayal of many German soldiers and of Russian civilians is a fair reflection of the experience of many survivors. One such person was Giovanni Passera, my cousin, a soldier in the artillery, told me how his shoes had fallen apart in the freezing temperatures and how he had bound his frostbitten feet in rags. He had been left to die in a peasant's house. The old Russian lady who lived in the house treated and bound his feet and after a period, he recovered enough to continue his march. He claimed that she had saved his life. He lost his toes and one foot to frostbite.

The book also describes the capture and treatment of prisoners by the Red Army. German prisoners were usually shot , though other nationalities went through a process of gradual extermination which killed some 60,000 of the 70,000 captured Italians. First, the prisoners were forced marched in freezing temperatures for several days without food. The wounded and those too weak to march were killed. Most were then locked into rail cars for weeks on end, with no food or water. Finally the survivors were herded into temporary prison camps and deprived of water and food, suffering from dysentery and typhus. Cannibalism was common. By Spring 1943, even Stalin was shocked at how few Italian prisoners had survived. With his eye on post-war propaganda, he appears to have tried to keep the remaining Italian prisoners alive - perhaps to be re-educated as Communists and returned to Italy.

I don't see this as a separate section of the book. The treatment of prisoners is central to the nature of this conflict. It was a conflict where inhumane ideologies had achieved dominance. Starvation and organised mass murder had become integral to the conduct of the war for both the Nazis and the Soviets. For the Nazis, it was an ideological principle and for the Soviets it was merely a practicality.

Although the book relies on previous Italian histories of these events, it acknowledges this, and provides a good deal of new eyewitness material.

Hope Hamilton's book recreates and documents this world through the experience of the Italian Alpine Corps. It is as an accurate and detailed account of the retreat but also manages to get the reader to understand the incomprehensible. A vision of human beings caught up in evil. If you're looking for your standard Osprey military history with crisp clean uniforms or a comic strip military adventure, this isn't it.
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on 16 September 2011
This is a very well-produced book, containing lots of eye-witness testimony from both published accounts and private conversations. The map are numerous and fairly clear, if sometimes short of terrain detail; the photos are very interesting, helping to bring the memoirists to life for the reader.
The narrative brings out very well the extent to which the Italian soldiers were caught up in events over which they had no control, fighting for a cause with which most of them couldn't identify, and poorly equipped for the role assigned to them (particularly for the Alpine Corps, as mountain troops fighting on the plains). There is sympathetic portrayal of relations with Russian civilians and POWs; relations with the Germans were much less cordial!
There are graphic first-hand accounts of the suffering of the alpini during the Soviet offensive and subsequent Axis retreat - not a great deal of analysis of tactical or operational matters, but sufficient detail to make the narrative comprehensible. A very honest and moving account of the diverse responses during the withdrawal - some men focussed solely on their own survival, others risking their own lives to assist wounded or frost-bitten comrades.
There are harrowing accounts of captivity too, acknowledging the horrendous mortality rate, the casual attitude of their guards towards death and suffering, and the growing callousness of the prisoners themselves as they tried to subsist on starvation rations. Also intriguing detail on attempts by the Russians at political indoctrination and recruitment of agents, even after Italy became a co-belligerent with the Allies in September 1943, and on the inefficiencies and political manipulation which delayed the return of the surviving captives to Italy.
The book concludes with very moving accounts both of reunions and of the anguish of those whose loved ones never returned. An appalling statistic (of which I was previously unaware): according to the findings of detailed research, of about 70,000 Italian soldiers (alpini and others) taken prisoner during the Soviet breakthrough, no less than 60,000 died in captivity, either on the long marches and train journeys to the POW camps or in the camps themselves.
In summary, a very worthwhile account of an aspect of the Russo-German War which is not often featured in English-language histories of the conflict.
NB: I did receive a free copy of the book from the publisher in return for agreeing to write a review. However, the opinions expressed above are entirely my own response to the work.
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on 25 July 2013
This book is about a part of the Second World War that is little known and seldom mentioned in England. It covers the breakout of Italian troops from the River Don and the hardships that were experienced.
A positive of this book is that it has been written by an English speaker, rather than being a translated version of an Italian book. The author uses the experiences of her relatives and their friends, mixed with historical facts, to give an interesting insight to this period.
This book portrays the Italian troops in a very good light when compared to their German allies. Given that the author's relatives and friends are a major source of content, I wondered if some less savoury incidents had been omitted or glossed over. That said, other accounts that I have read do support the general view portrayed here.
I recommend this book.
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on 19 June 2013
Not many books cover this particular subject. Hope has done a fine job. I also have to recommend Few Returned by E Corti and his novel The Red Horse. Both again are superb reads the novel being one of my favourite novels of all genres and his memoir Few Returned being up there in my favourite memoirs, well worth checking out. E Corti's memoir though was about the Eight Army retreat whilst Hopes book is about the Alpini Corps retreat from the Don..a terrible tragedy that went from bad to worse..esp when one division was practically destroyed holding the line and the other well go read the book...
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on 26 October 2016
Good detailed book about Italian anabase on Russian front, could be more photos and maps in better qality - these books could buy mainly the people with deeper interest WW2, and for them maps and photos are really interesting
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on 22 July 2015
Like history books, this one gives an insight into the tragic sacrifice of the Italian army trapped in Russia
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on 22 June 2016
with the weapons Italy had it is wonder that any one return.they where brave men
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on 6 January 2014
I preferred the English version as to avoid possible changes from the original by the translators.
The story of the withdrawal has been almost always reported as single stories, here the Author did a review mixing multiple single experiences obtaining a clear view of the catastrophe encountered by our army in Russia.
Nobody could win, even stronger army, against so many enemies.
The chapters about the prisoner of war camps are exhaustive, showing a hidden page of the story never reported so vividly.
Many thanks for your excellent job.
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